This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

By Alister McGrath
Doubleday, 306 pages, $23.95
The eclipse of atheism can't diminish its achievements


Atheism and organized religion are often in an inverse relationship, so that when one is perceived as oppressive, its opposite is seen as a liberating force. This is one of the main theses of Alister McGrath’s latest book. And although the professor of historical theology at Oxford has titled the work The Twilight of Atheism, he notes that that condition may not be permanent.

As in previous works, McGrath synthesizes a world of scholarly research in a format that is understandable but not simplistic. Although he made a personal pilgrimage from atheism to evangelical Christianity and has written several works of apologetics, McGrath finds nonbelief to be a valuable corrective to oppressive religious structures and practices.

“In its modern forms, it is unquestionably one of the greatest achievements of the human intellect, capable of capturing the imagination of generations,” he writes. This led atheism to flourish in Europe during periods when the Catholic church was seen as an oppressive force linked with oppressive governments. Protestantism, particularly Reformed theology, was scorned during this period as overly intellectual and rational, detached from the emotional and physical needs of the average person.

McGrath’s examination of the rise and fall of atheism as an intellectual force during the past three centuries produces some surprises. He shows, for instance, that Voltaire was a critic of Christianity but decidedly not an atheist, and that Darwin lost his belief in God not because of his theory of evolution but because of what he called the “damnable doctrine” of eternal punishment for nonbelievers.

Rejecting stereotypical descriptions of the alleged warfare between science and religion, McGrath notes that such evolutionary thinkers as Stephen Jay Gould have acknowledged that science can neither affirm nor deny the existence of God. Whether one wishes to argue for a theistic or an atheistic worldview, McGrath says, “Knockdown and foolproof arguments simply are not available to us.”

While McGrath makes some references to Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, many of his religious contrasts to atheism reference Christianity. He opines that a major reason atheism has put the faith on the ropes without delivering a knockout blow is that “Christianity is not a fixed, monochrome entity, but a diverse and dynamic faith that evolves in different manners at different points in history.”

For Christians, this may be comforting or troubling. As James 2:19 observes, a Christian is expected to go beyond simply belief in the existence of God. But then one can get caught up in disputes between Christianity and other religions; Catholic Christianity versus Protestant and Orthodox Christianity; and differences in Catholic theology and practice.

While McGrath’s work doesn’t address such internecine Christian quarrels, he repeatedly demonstrates that neither atheists nor believers can do much credible bragging about being superior in terms of consistently meeting human needs over the centuries. “History is about the specifics of any given situation,” he writes, “and religion is seen as liberating in some contexts, and restrictive and oppressive in others.”

In recent decades, he writes, Christianity has displayed a vision that attracts the oppressed in cultures around the globe, particularly in its Pentecostal forms. Atheism, in contrast, has come across as cranky and intellectually stultifying. And in the 20th century, totalitarian atheism wreaked much more havoc than any authoritarian forms of religion.

McGrath doesn’t speculate about whether the tide may turn against religion in general as a result of today’s religious-based terrorist movements, most of which are non-Christian. He says, however, that although atheism may be in the twilight today, it “stands in permanent judgment over arrogant, complacent and superficial Christian churches and leaders. It needs to be heard.”

Thanks to McGrath’s book, it can be heard in its best and worst forms. And even when it doesn’t offer much of an alternative to Christianity, its skeptical questions give apologists a good portion of food for thought.

Darrell Turner writes the section on religion for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year. He has been an associate editor for Religion News Service.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: